A Leading Composer of the Modern Music Theater
Prior to Karol Szymanowski, the manifestations of the Polish music theater were primarily limited to opera, the really noteworthy aspects of which were a corpus of national operas by Stanisław Moniuszko (1819-1872) and the growing popularity of Polish singers. With regard to the latter, in the second half of the 19th century. the brothers Jan and Edward Reszke and Marcella Sembrich-Kochańska appeared in the most prestigious opera houses, including those in the United States, Marcella Sembrich, for many years a soloist with the Metropolitan Opera in New York, made an outstanding appearance there in 1902 as Ulana in Ignacy Paderewski's opera Manru. It is this work, first produced in 1901 in Dresden and Lwów, that marks the beginning of 20th-century Polish opera. For many a long year, truly great works were hard to come by, even though there was no lack of composers exploring the genre.
Poland's turbulent history, however, placed a heavy burden of non-artistic problems on opera composers. Both during the partitions and following the restoration of independence in 1918, opera was expected to advance the nation's patriotic and historical education. Directors were keen to recreate Polish customs on stage, eagerly referring in individual scenes to the paintings of Jan Matejko. Thus Act IV of Tadeusz Joteyko's opera King Sigismund August was staged to correspond to the imaginary of Matejko's Union of Lublin painting while a reproduction of his huge Battle of Grunwald canvas served as a backdrop in Act III of Adam Dołżycki's opera The Teutonic Knights. Also, set designers would often paint Polish landscapes and views of Polish towns, while the librettists looked for inspiration to 19th-century national poems and novels by Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Kraszewski and Sienkiewicz.
It is against such a backdrop that Karol Szymanowski entered the Polish arts scene. Born in 1882, he was brought up on his parents' estate at Tymoszówka, in what is today's Ukraine. It was a place where the landed gentry's traditions were nurtured, where literary periodicals and the latest news from the worlds of music and books, found their way. The Szymanowski family used to spend the winter months in the nearby town of Elisavetgrad where they owned a house. Now and again, they undertook distant journeys. Hence, the first opera performances that the teenage Karol saw - apart from the Russian composer Dargomizhsky's Rusalka produced in Elisavetgrad - were Faust, Carmen, La Traviata and Wagner's Lohengrin, all in Vienna. It was Wagner that the young Szymanowski was enthralled by. Fascinated by entire decadent fashion in philosophy and literature, he instantly turned to the culture of Western Europe.
Szymanowski and Moniuszko had one thing in common: they both started writing music for the stage by composing an operetta. In 1909, Szymanowski composed his Lottery for a Husband to a libretto by Julian Krzewiński-Maszyński, a noted actor excelling in musicals and entertainment shows who was also a novelist and globe-trotter. The action of their work, which has never been produced or published, is set in America! The plot revolves around a matrimonial lottery; the characters include the obnoxious sons of a car manufacturer, Blacks, and members of two Clubs: the Merry widowers and the Pessimists, while the score includes a cake-walk and a ballad about an Indian chief. Szymanowski spared no efforts to have the work produced in Vienna, but without success.
In the years 1911-1913 he spent many months in that city which was so saturated with music that making one's living from operetta did not bring discredit even to musicians of Arnold Schonberg's stature...
Participation in Vienna's cultural life and the contacts with the local artistic community contributed to Szymanowski's first opera: the one-act Hagith completed in 1913. The biblical story of the conflict between the old King David and his son, the young Solomon, on account of a girl named Hagith - and for the crown - was suggested to Szymanowski. and subsequently developed, by Felix Dormann, the Viennese secessionist poet. According to King David's priests, the love of Hagith was to have given the aged king a new lease of life. However, Hagith is in love with Solomon, who reciprocates her feelings, and she refuses to participate in this ritual sacrifice. Following a wonderful scene of amorous temptation, offended pride, fury, contempt and fear, the old King dies. Hagith is stoned to death. Szymanowski remains there clearly under the influence of Richard Strauss; a noted commentator on Szymanowski places Hagith, in terms of its music and theme, between Puccini's Tosca and Strauss's Salome. Nevertheless, this early work by Szymanowski, even though somewhat eclectic and written to a German text (a Polish translation commissioned by the composer was not successful) is an example of expressionist drama, unique in Polish music.
Szymanowski's second opera, King Roger, is the result of a fruitful cooperation with the poet Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz. Completed in 1924, it is, again, a rare example in Polish music of a fully original work created by two outstanding personalities. It was conceived on an Odessa beach In 1918, with the First World War far away but revolutionary turmoil much closer at hand. At that moment, Polish manor houses were being set on fire on the country's eastern borderland, including Tymoszówka itself where Szymanowski's two beautiful pianos were dumped in a pond. King Roger was an escape into the world of medieval Sicily, which the two authors had explored earlier. The plot of the three-act opera revolves around the setting of one religion against another.
One, based on obedience and fear, rules the court of Roger, King of Sicily. It is guarded by hard-line Priests. The proponent of the other creed, extolling liberation and joy, is the young Shepherd of God-like beauty who attracts the people and the court, including Queen Roxana. Following a long period of indecision, Roger attempts to join the Shepherd's followers, but eventually he remains alone, free at heart. The plot of the opera is a reflection of the philosophical and artistic conflict of the Apollonian and Dionysian myths, a conflict that fired the imagination of many European Modernists. The figure of the Shepherd was an embodiment not only of the features of Dionysus but also of Christ and Eros put together. In music, he is enveloped, as is Roxana, in an impressionistic world of sound. The scenes of communal dance resound with Nietzschean echoes, while the scenes set at the court and in the temples gain great strength from the wonderful, almost Byzantine choral writing.
As a side-line to his major operatic works, in 1920 Szymanowski wrote the ballet grotesque Mandragora in which the Harlequin's arietta is the only brief vocal component. The work was a commission from Warsaw's Teatr Polski; it was to serve as a grand musical coda to Moliere's Le Bourgeois Gentilliomme. The ballet's plot, hastily devised in a restaurant by the composer working jointly with the directors of the production, was modeled on the Italian commedia dell' arte filled with unrestrained frolics. The King lusts after Columbine, a newly-arrived captive in his harem. However, she is set free by Harlequin, the Captain and the Doctor by a trick in which an elixir made of the roots of mandragora directs the King's lust back to his Queen. The music, scored for chamber ensemble (string quintet, several wood-wind instruments, percussion and piano) is marked by French-style lightness and humor.
The ballet Harnasie, in 3 scenes, with a choir and a tenor soloist, was finished in 1931 and is the crowning achievement of Szymanowski's output for the theater. Several people participated in the scenario and its subsequent drafts. The composer's manuscript score was destroyed in the German bombing of Warsaw in September 1939; for 50 years, hand written scores were used by theaters in the production of the ballet. Though the composer died in 1937, his final version of the score was not published until 1985!
The plot reflects Szymanowski's fascination with the folklore of the Tatra foothills, the Highlanders' customs, dances and songs; in fact, the entire Tatra ethos. He used to spend many months in the Tatra resort of Zakopane. a place which served as a retreat fur Polish Bohemians and therefore played a special role in Polish culture. Towards the end of his life, Szymanowski bought a home there, the Villa Atma, now a Museum.
The plot of Harnasie centers around a girl's love for Harnaś, leader of a band of highland robbers, who, after a fierce fight, abducts her from her wedding to someone else and they both elope into the mountains. With its strikingly simple plot, the whole work is on a par with the most outstanding pieces of 20th-century classical music which draw on the roots of national cultures: pieces by composers such as Bartok, Kodaly, Enescu, Stravinsky, Ravel, de Falla, Chavez and, in some ways, also Gershwin. The music of Harnasie enthralls one like a mountain wind, with its rich streams of melody, rhythms, colors and dynamics, as well as by the subtlety of its lyrical phrases.
Taken together, Szymanowski's stage output is unlike anything produced by either his predecessors or his contemporaries. His was an entirely different notion of what national art really was. He disassociated himself from all manner of easy references to folk motives, rather he chose as a model Chopin's ability to elevate aspects of the Polish spirit to that of universal musical axioms. Harnasie belongs, in the words of the emigre poet Jan Lechoń, "to the realm of myth, legend and symbol, the soul of a nation full of valor, freedom and strength; the work was a masterpiece boldly entering into the world's cultural heritage."
Szymanowski had three ideal theatrical models, as evidenced in his letters and writings. These were the theatrical works of Wagner, those of Richard Strauss and those of Stravinsky, the latter given shape in Siergej Diaghilev's "Russian Seasons" in Paris. Szymanowski himself created a wide range of works: a cabaret-type operetta, an expressionistic music drama, a "ballet-grotesque", an opera bringing together the elements of a mystery play and an oratorio, and a mountain fresco, bursting with dance. Yet, they all combine to create a distinctive theatrical world within the broadly understood.
Modernist style and that of European Symbolism. In this world, one comes across exaltation and parody, contests between various gods, the cult of the Orient and folk-based primitivism, ritual dance, the dark sides of4ove, rebellious impulses, the compelling charm of mystery and the archetypal figures of old kings, free women, beautiful youths, Harlequin and Dionysus all wandering on this Szymanowski Stage.
Even if it is true that Szymanowski generally did not achieve the position he really deserved in 20th-century music, he surely had more luck with his stage works. Cut off by the 1920 treaty of Riga from the region where he was born and grew up, he found himself in Warsaw at a time when the city's opera was thriving, with outstanding soloists and high production standards. The premieres of the composer's three major works Mandragora (1920), Hagith (1922) and King Roger (1926) were held in Warsaw at the best possible time with the participation of some of the best Polish artists. On the other hand, Harnasie did not have a single staging in Poland during the composer's lifetime. Szymanowski attended the ballet's world premiere in Prague in 1935, and the Paris production a year later, with the phenomenal Serge Lifar in the title role. He did not live to see the production of Harnasie in Poznań and Warsaw in 1938, as he died in Lausanne a year earlier.
Szymanowski visited the United States arriving here first in the winter of 1921. During that sojourn he was a frequent visitor to the opera, music-halls, theaters, cinemas, the circus, variety shows and concerts. He became convinced that Drabik's scenery would have created a sensation on this side of the Atlantic. He visited the States again in 1922 for a staging of fragments of his Mandragora in New York City.
After 1947, Szymanowski's music became victim of the politics of the time. In terms of the ideals of the social realism, culture was supposed to be created for the masses: the composer's work seemed too modern and too sophisticated. Harnasie was staged in Warsaw in 1951, under the pretext that the Composer depicted in it the life of poor peasants. Such were the times. The action was indeed presented quite realistically, but the ostentatiously new, geometric design by Andrzej Stopka caused quite a stir while the leading dancers created truly outstanding ballet performances.
Even though Szymanowski's stage output is modest in number, the list of productions of his works, be it in Poland or abroad, is long. Mandragora has had 13 productions, including two in America (New York, 1922; Chicago, 1925). Harnasie has had 24 productions. Though Hagith has been produced only four times, King Roger has had over 20 productions, including one in Palermo in Sicily (1949), two in London (1976, 1977), Buenos Aires (1981), Long Beach (1988), Bremen (1988), the latter a production by Poland's famous film director Krzysztof Zanussi. The 1992 production in Buffalo, which was also staged in Detroit. included the participation of Polish artists - producer Marek Weiss-Grzesiński, set designer Andrzej Majewski and soprano Izabel Kiosinska.
In addition to the works Szymanowski had written for the stage, many of his instrumental and vocal works have inspired the imagination of choreographer who have set ballets to his music. These productions include Szymanowski's Etudes (Warsaw, 1961), Masques (Gdańsk, 1963), Nocturne and Tarantella (Warsaw, 1966), the Third Symphony (Poznań, 1977), the First String Quartet in C major (Rome, 1980), Myths (Warsaw, 1982) and the First Violin Concerto (Ravenna, 1988). Also, stage versions of Szymanowski's otatorio Sabat Mater ave been produced in Łódź (1982) and Poznań (1984). Finally, the Australian choreographer G. Murphy devised his triple-bill ballet Shining to Szymanowski's music (Myths, the First Violin Concerto and the Fourth Symphony); the production has toured half-way around the globe: it was shown in New York's City Center in 1988.
The above list of productions, which is naturally incomplete, shows that Szymanowski's works have found their place In the repertoire of theaters and ballet companies in many countries besides Poland. I have sought to emphasize the composer's links with the European Modernist movement of the 1920's and 1930's. The Polish school of composition, as represented by the late Witold Lutosławski, and by Górecki, Wojciech Kilar, Augustyn Bloch and others looks to Szymanowski's music for its roots. The composer's operatic concepts were not taken up again until the 1960s, in the 1966 music drama Tomorrow by Tadeusz Baird and in the operas written by Krzysztof Penderecki in the period 1969-1991, thus his The Devils of Loudun, Paradise Lost, The Black Masque and Ubu Rex. Invariably, the production of a Szymanowski work in the theater contributes to the development of modern approaches to design, acting and dance. All this renders evident the magnitude of Szymanowski's continuing impact on the modern music theater.
The above is an edited text of a lecture given in 1994 in Buffalo, NY by Dr. Komorowska of the Chopin Academy of Music in Warsaw.
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